The Commodores picked up a huge win in Starksville last night, beating Mississippi State on the road for first time since 1993. Despite playing a Bulldog squad with stars Dee Bost, Renardo Sidney, and Ravern Johnson all in the lineup, Vanderbilt was able to avoid the upset and display the composure that had escaped them in losses at South Carolina and Tennessee.
Lots of things went right for the 'Dores last night. Jeffery Taylor showed why pundits suggested he could be a lottery pick in next year's NBA Draft. John Jenkins displayed a newfound ability to score inside the arc when he shot wasn't falling. And Festus Ezeli (5-5 FGs) showed off some post moves that he apparently learned from Vandy's new big man coach:
Last night's win was the Commodores' first as a ranked team this season, and seemingly broke the jinx that follows them around once they build a little hype. However, the team can't get caught looking ahead, as a tough Arkansas squad will be waiting for them at Memorial Gym Saturday. Here's what we might be able to expect from Vanderbilt after Thursday's win:
1. Jeffery Taylor: Lottery Pick. Taylor's impact on the court has only been limited by his inconsistent play throughout the season. Through the first half of the season, the junior had been as likely to dominate as to disappear on the court, often fading into the background rather than playing to his strengths and attacking the basket. While his defense had consistently been solid, his inability to take over a game on both sides of the court was holding back his draft stock.
However, Taylor showed that he can put it all together in a gritty performance on the road in SEC play. He put up 25 points - including the game sealing dunk - while hounding Mississippi State on defense (three steals) and being the team's key disruptor in the full court press. Without his man-to-man defense, Vanderbilt wouldn't have been in the position to catch the Bulldogs down the stretch. Without his scoring, they wouldn't have been able to pull even with 10 minutes left in the game. As a result, it's safe to say that Taylor was the key to this win.
Taylor scored from everywhere on the court, and though his nine three-point attempts weren't ideal, he took advantage of open looks when Rick Stansbury's team decided to leave him open on the perimeter. Then, with 20 seconds left on the clock and the game on the line, he came up with his finest play as a Commodore, stealing the ball in the backcourt and throwing down a monster slam in traffic. His blossoming play has been a big part of Vanderbilt's recent success. The Swedish Eagle has averaged 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, and three assists per game over the team's three-game winning streak.
2. John Jenkins is expanding his game. Jenkins was 2-7 from three-point range but 3-4 from inside, including 2-2 from the paint. His tip-in of a Brad Tinsley miss capped a 15-3 Vandy run late in the second half, and his drive to the hoop with 4:43 to play successfully fouled Renardo "Thud Butt" Sidney out of the game.
In short, it was the most active game we've seen inside the arc from the sophomore in some time. Jenkins found confidence in his ability to drive and create space - and even when unsuccessful, he worked well to draw fouls and produce on the offensive end. This attacking mentality helped him score an efficient 21 points on just 11 shots. This 1.91 points-per-shot mark was considerably higher than his season mark of 1.5 - suggesting that an already impressive scorer could be getting even better.
3. The team's composure has returned - but the results weren't entirely confidence building. While Taylor's ultra-clutch steal helped seal the game, there were plenty of holes in Vanderbilt's game in the second half against the Bulldogs. The positive signs are there; the team's ability to keep their heads and come back from a pair of sizable deficits is commendable. However, their play in the final minute didn't do much to suggest that the playcalling in the final minute has gotten much better.
The 'Dores had two meaningful possessions in the final two minutes, and both ended with Lance Goulbourne taking a shot late in the 24-second clock. The first was a decent look from three that didn't fall. The second ended when Goulbourne slipped en route to the basket, forcing a traveling call that gave Mississippi State a chance to hold the ball for the final shot and tie the game with a three-pointer.
Both were nice enough plays, but neither took advantage of the team's strengths, and instead put pressure on the offensively unheralded Goulbourne. The team's hot shooters - Jenkins, Taylor, and Ezeli - just couldn't shake free to get a good look when it mattered most. This became even more concerning when MSU snapped off an easy layup in their first crunch time possession to cut Vandy's lead. While the end result was positive for the Commodores, the way they got there didn't inspire confidence in their ability to produce in last-second situations.